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Roper v. Simmons

    Brief Fact Summary. Respondent committed murder when he was age 17. He was tried and sentenced to death after he turned 18.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.”

    Facts. Respondent Simmons conspired to burglarize and murder a person with two friends. Only one fully participated. They entered the victim’s home, kidnapped her, bound her with duct tape and electrical cord, and threw her into a river. Respondent was 17 at the time. He subsequently bragged out the killing. He was taken into custody and confessed. He was put on trial as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to death.

    Issue. “[W]hether it is permissible under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States to execute a juvenile offender who was older than 15 but younger than 18 when he committed a capital crime.”

    Held. No. The Supreme Court of the United States first established the applicability of the Eight Amendment, as well a precedent of the application of the death penalty to minors. Traditionally, minors did not face capital punishment. It noted that a “consensus” of the country is against the application of the death penalty to juveniles.

    The Supreme Court noted the gravity of capital punishment and its application. “Capital punishment must be limited to those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’” The Supreme Court further noted that juveniles are different, in that: they lack maturity and understanding of responsibility; are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure”; and that “that the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult.”  Having recognized the fact that a juvenile is not “the worst” offender, “the penological justifications for the death penalty apply to them with lesser force than to adults.”

    Dissent.
    Justice O’Connor’s dissent did not see how a consensus existed.
    Justice Scalia, joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas, took issue with the notion that the Constitution had “changed” in such a way to permit the decision.

    Concurrence. The concurring justices applauded the Supreme Court’s application of “[t]he evolving standards of decency that have driven our construction of this critically important part of the Bill of Rights foreclose any such reading of the Amendment.”

    Discussion. “The differences between juvenile and adult offenders are too marked and well understood to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty despite insufficient culpability.


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